Silent epidemic kills two people per minute throughout the world
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Viral hepatitis affects some 424 million people throughout the world, killing 1.4 million per year as a result of complications such as acute liver failure, cirrhosis, or liver cancer. The disease is sometimes called a “silent epidemic” because most people who are infected are unaware of their status.
The theme of this year’s World Hepatitis Day, July 28, is “This is the hepatitis. Know It. Confront it.” This year the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) is marking the day by calling on everyone to become better informed about hepatitis, to get screened for the disease and to seek treatment, if needed.
“People know very little about hepatitis, its potential severity, and its serious consequences for health and quality of life,” said PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne. “We therefore need to intensify our information, education and communication initiatives around this disease and take action to promote prevention and early detection so people can get the treatment they need.”
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver generally caused by a viral infection. Five principal types of hepatitis virus are known: A, B, C, D and E, which can be transmitted through a variety of routes including unprotected sexual intercourse, unsafe injecting and piercing practices and through contaminated water or food. These cause infection and severe and chronic inflammation of the liver, which in turn can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. In the Americas, between 8 million and 11 million people suffer from chronic hepatitis B infection, and 7 million have chronic hepatitis C.
This disease puts a heavy burden on health-care systems because of the high cost of treatment. In many countries it is the main cause for liver transplants.
The fact that most people do not have symptoms—and tend not to have them for decades until they develop chronic liver disease—has contributed to the problem of poor diagnosis and inadequate treatment.
“The number of deaths throughout the world each year from causes associated with hepatitis is about equal to the number of traffic deaths, that is, more than two deaths every minute,” said Rafael Mazin, PAHO/WHO senior advisor on HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, and hepatitis.
Hepatitis can be controlled with simple measures such as good hygiene, avoiding consumption of contaminated food and water, getting vaccinated for hepatitis B, practicing safe sex, and not sharing injection or piercing equipment.
PAHO/WHO has been collaborating with its member states on strategies to prevent and control viral hepatitis. All the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have officially introduced the hepatitis B vaccine into their child immunization programs, and more than 99 percent of donated blood units are screened for hepatitis B and C viruses
The Pan American Health Organization is also promoting hepatitis B vaccination of health workers and the expanded use of sterilized, disposable injecting, cutting and piercing tools and instruments to prevent cross infections (this includes needles used both in health facilities and in cosmetic procedures, such as tattooing).